Witchcraft, Paganism and Folk Magic
For the past several years I’ve been reading various books and articles and blogs discussing what is now being called ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ or ‘the traditional Craft’. These books present a form of magical practice, and sometimes of Pagan religion, that claims to represent forms of practice and belief older and more authentically structured than those of the Gardnerianand Alexandrian Crafts, and their popular imitators. Because of my general understanding of the ‘occult’ scene – i.e. that it is traditional to back-date materials and claim lineage and history that one does not have – I have tended to discount the claims of greater age. Because of some obvious-to-me failures of folklore and scholasticism, and because not a single secret document or old artifact has been revealed by any of these systems, I have tended to discount claims that it represents survival Paganism any more than does post-Gardnerian Wicca. So, in this little discussion I mean to set out my thinking on the topics of the survival of Pagan ways into the early modern period (1.e. 1600-ish and later), and how that relates to the practice of magic and other ‘occult’ traditions along the way.
First, I still consider it entirely unlikely that worship of European Pagan deities consciously continued into modern times from the late Pagan and medieval periods. There are a couple of possible exceptions, such as the Baltic cultures and possibly a trickle of direct survival among Scandinavians. Baltic Paganism was firmly living in 1250 ce, and some Baltic folk customs have certainly continued unbroken. But even they have trouble showing continuity through the late medieval, and many of the ways were ‘revived’ in the folkish rediscovery times of the late 18th and 19th centuries.
In Western Europe the case is much weaker. Folklore collections of the early modern period do find traces of memory of Pagan images and vocabulary, and literate magical tradition, largely unbroken since the fall of Rome, would flower in the creation of what we call the grimoires in the 1700s and 1800s. In those magical basic-training manuals you can find a few garbled remnants of the ancient Gods, and a great deal of ritual action that is authentically old. However, the possibility of deliberate worship of the classical Gods apart from the seven planets of astrology seems to be undocumented in any way. There are no folkloric or personal records of rites of Pagan worship from early modern times, and those could not have been any more illicit than the manuals of demon-summoning that were extensively copied and distributed. If there were a tradition of Pagan magical and ritual practice that lasted into literate times I’d expect it to have left some remnants.
If we want to measure whether or not some bit of folk culture is “Pagan’ or not, we might use several different standards. Most obviously, we can ask whether the material involves the active worship of Gods or spirits identifiable in pre-Christian sources. In almost every case, this brings us a negative answer – early modern magical and folkloric material has very little of that. We can find a few examples in Gaelic and Scandinavian countries, such as the offering to Manannan in Scotland, or other offerings to the sidhe or troll folk. There also might be a little something in the ‘fairy evocation’ workings of early modern magicians – if we think that King Oberion is some sort of survival. What resemblance later ‘fairy faith’ customs might have to pre-Christian customs is unknowable at this time, but we might give the benefit of that doubt if we like. However, the literate magical tradition, which was so important in transmitting technique and content over the centuries, seems to preserve nearly nothing of this sort. That does not, of course, prove absence but it does make presence less likely.
What seems clear is that traffic with spirits, uses of ‘sympathetic’ magic, herbal charms, other natural charms with bones, skins, woods, etc and many other magical and occult practices did persist into modern times. Is this material ‘Pagan’? If measured by whether or not such things call upon Pagan deities, then the answer would be no. Barring a very few examples from Scandinavia, we see none of that. If close resemblance to practices and customs that Pagans would have used is our measure, there’s some chance for that to be the case. Each of the practices mentioned is clearly described in pre-Christian literate magical sources. On a spiritual level, calling upon land-wights and the dead may be as Pagan in 1890 as in 890, even if all the names have changed. Still, without a conscious intention on the part of the practitioner to call upon spiritual powers other than the Christian pantheon, (including its demons) I’m hesitant to refer to the rites used by 18th and 19th century charmers and cunning folk as Pagan. So, if we don’t classify traditional folk-magic as Pagan, shall we classify it as ‘witchcraft’?
The word wicce is first plainly used in context of Pagan religion. Of course we have no Germanic mythic or ritual material written down by Pagans (nor any Celtic). Some of the first references to wicce or wicca we find are from Roman church laws and proclamations. I found:
“If any wicca (witch), wiglaer (wizard), false swearer, morthwyrtha (worshipper of the dead) or any foul contaminated, manifest horcwenan(whore), be anywhere in the land, man shall drive them out.”
The word wicca is associated with animistic healing rites in Halitgar’s Latin Penitential (c.890 ce) where it is stated that:
“Some men are so blind that they bring their offering to earth-fast stone and also to trees and to wellsprings, as the witches teach, and are unwilling to understand how stupidly they do or how that dead stone or that dumb tree might help them or give forth health when they themselves are never able to stir from their place.”
These plainly refer to ‘wiccan’(pl) as religious, as well as magical practitioners – there’s little functional difference between religion and magic in many traditional cultures.
It does seem likely that a wicce in Anglo-Saxon Britain would have occupied the place later approximated by the cunning man or woman. Cures, uncrossings, finding lost things, far-seeing and fortelling, dealing with problems with local wights and ghosts would have been standard stock in trade. Because of the screen of the monkish authors, we cannot see whether these same people helped householders to make proper sacrifices, or tended forest shrines and temples, or lived as functional ‘priests’ or ‘clergy’ in villages. I suspect they did. “As the witches teach” seems to me to suggest a central place in religion as well as magic.
Other Christian descriptions of ‘witches’ and ‘witchcraft’ retain this Pagan religious atmosphere. One of the late references to Pagan deity is found in the famous Canon Episcopi (c.875 ce):
“Have you believed or have you shared a superstition to which some wicked women claim to have given themselves, instruments of Satan, fooled by diabolical phantasms? During the night, with Diana, the pagan goddess, in the company of a crowd of other women, they ride the backs of animals, traversing great distances during the silence of the deep night, obeying Diana’s orders as their mistress and putting themselves at her service during certain specified nights. … Thus they leave the true faith and fall into pagan error in believing that a god or goddess can exist besides the only God.”
So from about the same period as the previous clerical reference we have Church authorities plainly identifying Pagan deity as the source of opposition. Certainly we can hold out for ‘witchcraft’ of that period to have been Pagan survival, infused with Pagan religion. This leads me to want to define witchcraft as part of Pagan religious phenomena.
So for their first 500 years or so, the church slowly ate away at the Pagan memory, outlawing the practices, destroying the shrines, and teaching the next generations. The next wave of rinsing-away of Pagan content from European folk tradition seems to have been the propagation of the ‘satanic witch’ by the church. The Pagan gods and spirits, as their ways were forgotten became replaced, in literate narratives and in folk-magic charms, by mythic figures from Christianity. Conjuring that might once have been done under the blessing of the Dead was perhaps transferred to the saints, Gods with the Trinity, etc. Wells and caves were baptised in the new religion. But whatever the church couldn’t fit into it’s ways – the wild revels, the sacrifices, the dealings with strange wights, divinations,etc, became ‘sorcery’ and witchcraft, and eventually heresy.
When the witch ‘craze’ begins, around 1400 the church produces a description of witchcraft that is once again plainly religious. Diana and the nature spirits have been forgotten, and replaced with ‘the Devil’ and his imps. The delightful Pagan revels of folk memory (and likely ongoing practice, whether with or without Pagan religious content) became the outre Witches Sabbath, reviving classical fears of cannibalism, infanticide and debauch.
The greatest blow to folk memory of Pagan ways in Europe seems to have been the Protestant reform. The destruction of the Roman church’s structures and the prohibition of their folk customs was a harsh break in continuity in much of western Europe. The Protestant leaders taught that Catholic rites were little better than witchcraft, and the image of the black-robed wizard and his book and staff owes a great deal to the Protestant memory of the Roman Catholic bishop or priest. In the end folkways often reasserted themselves, but had to be reconstructed, if only from a generation or two of lapse.
So, it gets to be 1650 or so, and Europe is blinking and waking up from the stress of the renaissance and reformation, and the birth of science, and the end of church hegemony. We see the birth of the modern wave of occultism, in the Masons and other fraternal orders, the rise of democracy and personal choice in religion, and the synthesis of ritual magic that comes through the grimoires. By this time literacy is more wide-spread; literate magic and folk-magic become closely entwined.
I think that it’s in this period that we see begin to see magical practice divorced from the popular religion of its culture. By the late 1700s both religion and rationalism argued against magic, while the popular demand for the arts remained steady. Religion was no longer monolithic or implicit, and citizens began to view themselves as having a choice as to what and whether they worshipped. The cunning man of that time might have his choice of ideas available in folkways and literature.
Here’s the thing – I don’t see why these secular-ish cunning folk of early modern times are ‘witches’. Witch in parlance by that time almost always meant malefice – the cunning folk mastered witches – that is, they defeated them. A witch-master turned aside the malefice of the witches still imagined by the rural people (or actual evil magic, on occasion, I suppose…). Of course the church’s definition made witchcraft and magic identical – all ‘magic’ (as opposed to orthodox spiritual practice, which was ‘religion’ whether or not it precisely resembled magical techniques) was powered by Satan and his demons, and all magicians had made at least a tacit pact with Satan. So when popular parlance referred to cunningfolk as ‘witches’ they didn’t mean ‘wise ones’ or ‘charmers’, they meant ‘evil magic-users’.
Looking from the perspective of practitioners I have trouble finding much of pre-Christian survival in the cunningman’s bag. Of course some of the basics of magic don’t change, but the content of the material has often been thoroughly Christianized. What has never been discovered is a cunningman’s work in which the devil is worshipped in a religious fashion, or which calls on Pagan gods or spirits (apart from the very Christianized spirits of the planets…). Just at this moment I cannot recall instruction for any cult of the dead practices, or genius-locus practice, though those could be hidden under works about ‘terrestrial demons’, etc. Of course both such spirits are employed implicitly in using natural objects, proper waters, woods, etc, but this is pretty heavily disguised or forgotten in early-modern instructions. To the extent that the cunning worker made a ‘pact’ with some local wight, I suppose that’s a Pagan element in survival.
Now, I do think it’s fair to say that revival Witchcraft has drawn on the cunningman’s sources, while adding a broader list of folklore and mythic sources as a spiritual or religious overlay. Gardner’s quartered circle, tool set, and style of circle-casting owes a good deal to the same grimoire sources that cunningfolk would have known. Methods of divination, of spirit arte and of making charms and talismans have migrated into non-Gardnerian forms of revival. However, as far as I can see, this is a case of modern revivals imitating literary sources. I have yet to encounter any evidence for direct inheritance of Pagan content. In cunning craft we find invocations of God and the Saints, the angels and archangels, demons of the sort found in the grimoires occasionally even of the early-modern notion of ‘fairies’. Most of these have little or no apparent relation to the ways of a wicce, or of a dreeman, much less of a truly pre-Christian, western European magic-user.
All of this inclines me to make a sharp distinction between the cunning man’s art and witchcraft. We have solid vocabulary words that help make sense out of magical practice – folk magic, astrology, conjury, charming, all plainly describe cunning art, while applying the strange term ‘witchcraft’ to it only seems to imply that cunning arts involved the worship of illicit (whether Pagan or demonological) spirits. While some cunning folk did describe their relation with a familiar, all is presented in a thoroughly Christian mythic setting.
I define all known modern examples of conscious Paganism, including Pagan Witchcraft, as Neopagan. I remain unconvinced that active worship of the Old Gods, or unbroken pre-Christian initiatory lineages, continued in secret circles anywhere in Europe – and least likely in western Europe. Therefore all modern people who consciously worship (i.e. enter into magico-religious relationship with) spirits not from the Christian pantheon are drawing on recent (whether 70 years old or 170 years old, oldest…) reconstructions. Thus, we are Neopagans.
I disapprove of using ‘neopagan’ to refer to or exclude any specific style of modern Paganism. Hellenic or Saxon reconstructionists are as neopagan as tie-dyed eclectics with hoola-hoops. Neopagan refers to the family of magico-religious movements that first arose in the 20th century (maybe the late 19th…) in which I would include Asatru, Wicca, Traditional Witchcraft (not traditional folk-magic), Thelema, the various ethnic reconstructionisms and no doubt a long list of smaller systems. There’s some chance that Baltic religion retains some unbroken lines of practice, but even that is uncertain.
In the same way, I rather think that using ‘witchcraft’ to refer to folk-magic practices divorced from religious context is needlessly confusing, and mixes very different ideas. Witchcraft has almost always referred to systems connected with religion (apart from anthropological usage, which I haven’t dealt with here), and at least the term should be modified by whatever religious system it’s worked in. In this sense one can be a ‘Christian Witch’, even if being a Christian Wiccan is a contradiction in terms (as it would have been in the Old English usage). However, traditional magic-users in cultural intact settings simply don’t use the term ‘witch’ or ‘witchcraft’ for what they do. When you find someone using that term, it almost always indicates conscious reinvention.
So, there’s no real conclusion to this screed…
Those who are attracted to the idea of witchcraft will continue to devise methods to express their self-identification. One of the things I like best about the Trad Craft trend is its interest in using authentic sources to reconstruct what a Pagan cunning practice might be like. For me, as a fairly liberal reconstructionist Pagan, I just don’t have an interest in reconstructing the world or worldview of 17th century Europe – it’s too latter-period, already too stripped of myth and mystery, with only scraps and tag-ends of the pre-Christian material that pushes my buttons. I don’t assume that 17th century folkways retain much of pre-Christian lore, and find archeology and observation of surviving tribal and polytheistc ways to be at least as instructive about what Pagan magic might have looked like as what remained in the last few centuries.
Did this walk through a confused topic make me feel less confused… maybe a little…